Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has been strongly attacked by his own side for suggesting that the world is moving inexorably towards open borders. It’s another sad reflection, considering the internationalist idealism of the founders of the Labour Party, that those arguing for open borders are regarded as aberrant, whilst those arguing for controls over the free movement of people are regarded as mainstream. It’s perfectly possible, of course, that those supporting strong borders are merely reflecting what they see as being the opinion of the electorate – but that’s an even sadder reflection on the state of the modern Labour Party and how far it has strayed from its early ideals. And pandering to conventional opinion rather than being willing to challenge it serves only to strengthen it.
In the circumstances, suggesting that open borders are the way of the future was a brave statement by John McDonnell. I think he’s actually right. The world is changing around us in ways which not everyone will like; but not liking something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. In particular, modern communications technology makes it easier for people to compare and contrast their own way of life with that elsewhere. It’s too easy to see the refugee crisis as a product of war or famine alone. Whilst those are certainly factors, concentrating too heavily on those ignores the wider economic issues leading to large scale migration.
‘Economic migrants’, as governments like to refer to them, are ‘merely’ escaping poverty, rather than death through famine or war; but poverty causes death too. It can be slower and less dramatic, but poverty – even relative poverty – affects longevity as well. And there can be no doubting the disparity in the quality of life between the rich countries and the poor. It is surely entirely understandable that people seeing a better quality of life elsewhere will attempt to seek it out, rather than accept their current state.
Of course, whilst modern communications make the disparities more visible, and the comparative ease of travel (compared to the situation just a few decades ago) facilitates greater mobility, neither of those is the underlying cause of the disparity. That comes down to centuries of differential rates of economic development; and we should never forget that the greater pace of development in the richer parts of the world was for a very long time underpinned by exploiting the resources of the rest. The whole history of colonialism and capitalism is about the transfer of wealth from some areas to others. In this case, I’m talking about the richer and poorer countries across the world, but similar processes have also operated internally within the richer countries.
Add in the likely effects of a changing climate, and we are going to see even more mass migration in the future, and people ignoring borders in the process. There are two potential responses to the situation. The first is the stance taken by conventional politicians, which is all about building fences and obstacles, pulling up the drawbridge as it were, to stop people moving around. That’s proving hard enough now. If the numbers continue to grow, it is likely to become unsustainable without resorting to the increasing use of force. The other is the stance taken by McDonnell, which is that we need to start thinking about the consequences and how we prepare for them.It’s not an easy or a comfortable question to be asking ourselves. How do we protect and sustain accepted cultures and customs if the population demographic is changing? How do we deal with the economic and social consequences? Being afraid, for whatever reason, to even ask such questions is part of the problem, but the result – trying to pretend that we can continue to hoard wealth in some parts of the world whilst denying it to others – simply won’t work for very long. If the critics of McDonnell succeed in silencing debate on the question, we’ll all be the losers in the longer term.